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How to make your D&D game accessible to everyone

Long ago, in the mists of time (ie, in the mid 1980s, when I first discovered D&D), the experience of playing the game was rather like this.

  1. You kept it quiet, it was very uncool and to be uncool was to invite public ridicule and potentially an opportunistic kicking. Yes, you could be beaten mercilessly for having a D20.

  2. You kept it quiet, it was very uncool and to be uncool was to preclude oneself from ever being romantically successful at school, which was hard enough aged 14.

  3. You kept it quiet because, well, there was no internet anyway and the only people you had to tell things to were the same half dozen nerds you had grown up with.

  4. Unless you were at an advanced level of nerdery where you went to games conventions or bought RPG magazines (no to the first, yes to the latter), you existed in something of an fantasy silo, with oneself and aforementioned half dozen nerds.

They say that the past is a foreign country and they do things differently there, and this is indeed the case. Whatever one might say about the present moment, the 1980s were certainly more homophobic, on the whole more racist (though the current moment is giving 40 years ago a good run for its money), and definately more sexist.

If there were enormously diverse RPG groups then, where male and female BAME, LGBT players got to speak their truth and be their authentic selves and act out fantasy adventures together in an environment where they felt safe and cared about, they were extremely rare.

The RPG experience was, for the most part, the preserve of white boys trying not to be beaten up too regularly. This is not to suggest for a moment that the D&D Starter Set or AD&D was dominated by bigoted little teen fascists, I am happy to note that all of my contemporaries from the 1980s have grown up into being the most caring, open and accepting people I could have had the pleasure to know.

And yet, for me, the year 2015 was quite an education.

Other than a long spell playing Cyberpunk 2020 in the 1990s and MERP in the 2000s, I had forsaken RPGs for the allure of drink and drugs in my 20s and it wasn't until I was 40 years old and a new dad that I realised that my RPG itch had returned.

I began to create what is now the Arclands World and quickly a bunch of collaborators came onboard, including Alex and Katya who now make up the triumvirate of Verse Online.

When I began to connect with the D&D community (remember, you're talking to pre-internet man here) online and offline, it was evident that something huge had happened in the RPG world and that the internet and social media had enabled it.

Now you might say 'well, duh' to the next bit, but bear in mind that I am the D&D equivalent (less toned bod) of Steve Rogers, thawed out after a long time in the ice.

The RPG community is everything I hoped it would be, more diverse in every concievable way than anyone could have imagined in the first age of D&D (which lasted into the early 1990s).

Hooray, thought I, the doors are open, and now I didn't have to worry about the bullies, because I had a second blue belt in Kung Fu, and I had told my wife about my sordid D&D past long ago.

However, it soon became apparent that the energy, fun, frivolity and diversity of experience that was coalescing to create an entirely new D&D culture was accepted by many, but resented and in some ways actively resisted by a few.

Older players who felt they didn't recognise D&D any more or who felt that they were the ultimate arbiters of what D&D (or any RPG) actually was acted as gatekeepers.

It wasn't just the old timers (and I am one too, let's face it), who did this though. More recent players in this vast new crowd would sometimes impose a fixed world view of D&D, or canon, on other players and invariably those on the recieving end of this power dynamic would be less confident or empowered.

Now, in 99% of these cases, those doing the telling weren't bad or unpleasant people, there are a small number of out and out fascist role play gamers out there and they are, for the avoidance of doubt, very bad people.

The people I mention are normally those who aren't familiar with seeing the world of gaming through other people's eyes. We're all a bit guilty of this from time to time, and the trick is to be aware of it and to avoid doing it as much as possible.

If the world of RPGs was once the preserve of the white and straight and the male, then the challenge is to shape the game so that someone who isn't white or male or straight can access and have some degree of ownership over the game.

An RPG that is agressively heteronormative, for example, where straight male players act out sexual fantasies (eugh, I know, but it is a regular occurrence), might be really uncomfortable for a lone female player who might not have the confidence to say how repellent she finds it.

Similarly, how does a BAME player feel in a Lord of the Rings style game when the object is to protect nice (literally) white Minas Tirith from the Easterlings on giant elephants?

Here is where a lot of angry stuff will inevitably come back at me, which is cool, I can take it. The response is:

  • You're talking politics. Why can't you leave politics out of D&D, I just want to DM a game.

The answer to that one, is that because you are playing with other people, you are by extension creating a 'polity' a little group of people bound together by rules. The rules should be fair to everyone and give everyone a shot of enjoyment. If you choose to ignore the needs of gay, BAME, female or other players, that's a political decision too.

  • Why should I change my campaign to suit what players want?

Firstly, if there is something potentially racist, sexist or homophobic or in some way exclusionary in your campaign, ask yourself why it is so important for you to include it there in the first place. What are you really trying to say? Secondly, if removing a cosmetic aspect of the campaign makes it more likely that other people can enjoy it, why not?

  • Isn't this safe space cancel culture

No it isn't, and nobody is asking anyone to create safe spaces where players are kept safe from life's cruel realities or from lively debate (by the way, the people who normally want to include racist and sexist stuff in their RPGs do so because they know it will exclude others, or they enjoy showing those most upset by it that they can inflict their ideas on them with impunity). The fact is that we are creating fantasy, not censoring reality, and it's either a fantasy we can all enjoy, or it's one that excludes others.

  • This is wokeflakery gone mad

No, again, it isn't. It's people who might be unlike you being able to have a voice and have their needs heard.

  • There are some things in my campaign world, like slavery or bigotry, that might upset others but they are integral to the world in general.

Cool, keep them in. The people you are playing with are (or should be) adults too. We live in a world riven with all manner of injustices and role playing as heroes who overcome these sorts of evils is part of the fun. The problem generally arises when we are insensitive to the discomfort of others, when we portray the cultures and identities of people sat around the gaming table (who are normally less empowered than us) in crass and ignorant ways. If you like the people you play with and you want them there at your table, you will know if they feel comfortable there.

Ultimately, the relationship between the GM and the players is one of negotiation, you are co-creating a world of the imagination together and the purpose is not to impose things on one another but to engage in a dialogue that means everyone gets what they need.

  • Dude, I already do all this, what do you think I am?

A nice person and the future of role play gaming

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